The Second (or Third) PhD Supervisor


Although the main research supervisor normally has the most contact with a research student, the role of the Second Supervisor also provides a useful balance. Normally the second (and perhaps third) supervisor has a limited contact with the student, perhaps as little as three or four discussions per year, but the input they provide is also valuable. It might be because the two supervisors cover different aspects of the same research problem and so can give different suggestions to cope with problems, or they may favour slightly different research methods and emphasis in the investigation. Even when the advice is similar from both supervisors, it can provide a reassurance that the student is on the right (or the wrong!) track. Research has indicated that the way that we supervise research students is often heavily influenced by the manner in which we were supervised ourselves. Some supervisors prefer a distant role, only making contact through formal meetings to check that the research is progressing well. They expect their research students to independent-minded and self-motivated and see a supervisor’s role as a combination of safety-net (for consultation in times of trouble) and manager (ensuring that all the key stages of development and reporting are taken care of). At the other end of the spectrum there are supervisors who seek to micro-manage the PhD project. Resist this temptation! Although the supervisor has a strong self-interest in ensuring that the student’s research project is successfully completed, the work needs to be done by the student, including making the mistakes, false starts, and the hours of working out the best way forward. The relatively light touch provided by the second supervisor can easily be provided via Skype or other such distance-shrinking audio-visual technology. If it is done on a regular basis, perhaps with some periodic face-to-face meetings, this can also be an option for the main supervisor. A benefit of this is that the supervisory team can be brought together on the basis of the skills and enthusiasm that they provide, not simply because they happen to be co-located in the same building or campus. Gone are the days when a PhD student needs to be based just along the corridor for their main supervisor – and anyway, many research students who were residentially based near their supervisor’s office will tell you that their supervisor was so busy globe-trotting to conferences and fieldwork that they hardly saw them for months at a time. Although the UK universities insist upon an external PhD examiner from a different university to ensure the equivalence of the level of the degree, it’s a pity that there is so much emphasis attached to individual institutions as this would seem to be a great opportunity to bring together cross-institutional expertise at the supervision stage, as well as at the final viva voce.


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